In April, 47-year-old fell runner Nicky Spinks set a new women’s record for the Bob Graham Round, a 66-mile circuit that takes in 42 of the Lake District’s highest peaks. Last year, the Yorkshire-based farmer won the 100km 10 Peaks Xtreme outright. Spinks only took up competitive running in her 30s, but she holds the fastest women’s time for the UK’s three toughest mountain challenges: the Bob Graham Round (England), Paddy Buckley Round (Wales) and Ramsay Round (Scotland).
What motivates you?
Once I spot a record that I think is achievable I can’t leave it unchallenged. Since I had breast cancer [in 2006], when there’s something I’d like to do, I try to do it rather than putting it off.
How did it feel to set a new Bob Graham Round record?
I’d describe it as a small victory. I’m pleased to have done it but I knocked only six minutes off my 2012 record [Spinks finished in 18:06] – pretty unbelievable given the bad conditions I faced back then. I think I’m just an 18-hour-something runner!
You cut your hand during the run. How do you push through pain?
In the early stages of pain, I tell myself not to notice it. I have a high pain threshold. I also think adrenaline blocks it. My hand hurt a lot more the week after the Round than it did at the time.
Do women have an advantage when it comes to ultra running?
Not a physical advantage, but a lot of the battle is mental. Women are generally more cautious than men – they keep more in reserve, which is key in the first half of an ultra. Men have more of a ‘I’ll see what happens’ attitude. I think that as more women come into the sport, we’ll finish higher up the field.
Tell us about your 10 Peaks win.
For about a third of it I was running with the two men I eventually beat. There were 10 or so in front of us. But it got claggy on Helvellyn and when we reached the checkpoint at the bottom of the valley we found we’d taken the lead. I pushed on and finished 90 minutes in front.
Do men try to beat you now?
I think all women runners get that a bit. It’s mostly at the beginning of a race that men try to get in front of me. I’m happy to let them go – I stick to my own pace.
Why do you excel at long distances?
I’m not the fastest, but I have the ability and experience to keep going, and I’m good at pacing. There are no prizes for getting to the first checkpoint first. You’ve got to hold yourself back. I’m also strict about eating. My mantra at L’Echappée Belle [a 95-mile mountain race in France, in which Spinks placed second this summer] was, ‘Forget your stomach at your peril!’ I always carry salt-and-vinegar Hula Hoops! The tangy taste and the salt are perfect.
How did you get into fell running?
Before I met my husband, Steve, and started farming in Yorkshire, I had an office job and ran a few miles a week to keep fit. I hadn’t run for ages when I signed up for a local 10K with a friend in 2001, and then trained for the Great North Run. I was very average. Then I started doing a few small fell races and realised I liked off-road running a lot more. I love to get away from civilisation and be on my own. At fi st, when I was descending, I’d think, ‘What if I fall?’ But you can acquire fell running skills with practice – learning to relax and concentrate at the same time.
How do you feel about the huge growth of ultras and trail races?
A lot of the new events springing up tend to go round the mountains, rather than up them, and don’t require navigation. It seems that there is room for everybody – but it would be a shame to see it over-commercialised.
Does the lack of recognition and reward in your sport bother you?
I suppose if there was more money there would be more people doing it, too, which I wouldn’t want. I certainly don’t do it for reward and recognition. You just get used to the fact that there are no prizes. I won a hamper in the Pyrenees once, with local food, drink and a bunch of flowers. That was lovely.